Tennessee football coaches aren’t welcome at Pahokee High School. At least right now.
UT assistant coach Eddie Gran was asked to leave school property during a recruiting visit last Monday by principal Ariel Alejo in response to UT coach Lane Kiffin’s comments about Pahokee and its alleged efforts to funnel football players to the University of Florida.
Kiffin’s comments were made the day after National Signing Day on Feb. 4 at a fan function in Knoxville.
“Someone at the school was going to screw it up. The fax machine wouldn’t work, or they would have changed the signatures, all the things that go on in Pahokee,” Kiffin said at the time in announcing the signing of star receiver Nu’Keese Richardson.
The Palm Beach Post reported Monday that Pahokee Chamber of Commerce president Lewis Pope III wrote a complaint to Tennessee Chancellor Jimmy G. Cheek in which he cited an article in the Gainesville Sun that quoted Kiffin as saying, “For those of you who haven’t been to Pahokee, there ain’t much going on. You take that hour drive up from South Florida, there ain’t a gas station that works. Nobody’s got enough money to even have shoes or a shirt on.”
Pahokee is located on the shore of Lake Okeechobee in Palm Beach County.
Alejo was not in his office on Tuesday and could not be reached for comment.
Pahokee coach Blaze Thompson said he supported Alejo, adding that he and Richardson were caught in the middle of the ongoing maelstrom.
“He’s not a vindictive man,” Thompson said of Alejo. “He’s waiting on something to happen.”
That something is an apology to Pahokee High and the entire Florida community in person — possibly during an open meeting with Alejo and Pope.
“Coach Kiffin publicly apologized to Blaze Thompson ... but I’m still waiting, and the community is as well,” Alejo told The Palm Beach Post. “It’s what I think he owes the community of Pahokee and what he owes this school. His comments were made public, so now he needs to go publicly and retract those comments.”
Thompson said Tuesday that UT officials said Kiffin has made efforts to contact the school and others in the community to apologize. However, the necessary amends apparently haven’t been made.
“If it were up to me, I’d like it to be done,” Thompson said. “But it’s not up to me.”
Kiffin apologized publicly about the comments shortly after they were made. He has said he didn’t expect the comments to become public as they were intended for UT’s boosters and fans attending the event.
Kiffin declined to comment on the matter when reached by phone Tuesday.
In April, Kiffin spoke to The Palm Beach Post about his comments at the recruiting breakfast, which also included Kiffin’s comments accusing Urban Meyer of violating NCAA rules in his recruitment of Richardson.
“If I offended anybody in Pahokee or (anyone who) has to do with Pahokee or in the schools, I apologize; and I want to make sure it’s understood that is not what was meant by it (the comments) at all,” Kiffin told the newspaper. “It was just an energetic breakfast with some of our donors. Didn’t even know that there was a camera present when the things were said.
“It just wasn’t something that was meant to go in front of the media and make a big statement. ... It’s why immediately that day I apologized and made sure that everybody understood it wasn’t my intention to offend anyone at the University of Florida or coach Meyer.”
Said Thompson: “It’s something I can’t control. I wish it had never happened.”
UT secured the 5-foot-11, 150-pound Richardson after he had been committed to Florida for more than eight months. Richardson was widely considered one of the top 100 prospects in the nation.
Pahokee has several college prospects for the 2010 class. UT has offered at least five a scholarship.
“My main goal each year is to win and send kids to college,” Thompson said. “Blackballing a school is not conducive to doing that. We want our relationship with Tennessee to be a good one.
“I don’t want my actions or my principal’s actions to affect any kid going to college.”
Internet speculation has centered on Alejo’s allegiance to Florida. Alejo graduated from Florida and has a Gator emblem on his Pahokee High bio.
“He may be,” Thompson said when asked if Alejo was a Florida fan. “I’m a University of Miami fan. We’re all fans of different schools but we’re professional.
Drew Edwards contributed to this report.